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by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

Rabbit season

In the first light of morning, the big dog runs to the western window of our bedroom and jumps onto the blanket chest, whimpering and shaking. Unable to contain herself, she lets out one sharp bark.

The little dog, because she has no mind of her own, runs to the southern window and starts yelping her fool head off.

“Hush,” my husband says, not even bothering to raise his head off the pillow.

We know what’s causing the commotion. There’s a little rabbit living under the shed, and it comes out every morning to nibble hay from the pile the ox was working on the night before. It’s nice to see a rabbit sharing breakfast with the barn-roosting chickens, who also enjoy scratching and scrounging in the early morning.

There’s a clear view of this little scene of farmyard tranquility from that western window, as the big dog knows. The little dog barking out the southern window cannot see the rabbit, or the chickens or even the ox, but since she has no idea what she is barking at it makes no difference to her. She just likes to join the chorus.

Spring is chorus time for a lot of animals. Our woods and streams are still frozen and snow-covered, but soon enough the frogs will wake up and start singing. The bird chorus has begun in the morning, still mostly chickadees and sparrows, although the cardinals and phoebes will show up even in our northern zone soon enough. I’m not sure the honking and quacking of geese and ducks on the lake and overhead is melodious enough to be described as song, but it’s all part of the sonic background that introduces spring.

For rabbits, spring starts early and you can tell by the roadkill that it is currently the Rabbit Season of Love. I counted half a dozen former rabbits on the road last week, likely felled while courting.

The yard rabbit seems to have moved into an underground home created years ago by a pet rabbit, Velvet, who refused to live in a hutch. Velvet made several burrows — under the shed, the back porch, the chicken coop — and moved frequently among her homes. Now that she’s gone, there are plenty of places for a spring visitor to move into.

And maybe even raise a family. Our daughter has named the little undershed dweller Petersson, but offered that we might rename it Petersdottir if it starts bearing children.

In the dusky half-light, Petersson looks gray, but with enough sunshine you can see he (or she) is actually a rusty brown mottled with black and gray hairs, with some white underneath. My daughter thought from the coloration that it might be a snowshoe hare losing its winter white, but it’s too small for that. And eastern cottontails, our most common little rabbit, molt this time of year.

They also start breeding this time of year, and they can breed prolifically. Eastern cottontails don’t generally make it to their third birthdays, but they can have six or eight litters by then, each with four to eight babies. The ones who live in more temperate regions can breed all year long.

That makes for a lot of rabbits, but then rabbits have a lot of predators. And a lot of those predators — hawks, eagles, owls, foxes, coyotes, snakes — live in our woods.

When I worry about the day young Petersson exchanges his pile of old hay for some spring spinach from the garden, my husband tells me I should worry more about the rabbit’s expected life span. “He might not be here by the time the garden is going.”

It’s April, and those greens should be coming up by now. We should have shoots of daffodils and garlic. But winter is hanging on this year.

On Easter morning, I hiked our favorite mountain, and there was thick snowpack from bottom to top. The next day, we took the daughter back to school in New York City, where the daffodils were in full bloom.

By midweek some snow started to clear from the edge of the vegetable garden closest to the stone wall. As soon as I saw soil, I asked my husband to plow a row for cold weather crops. He did not. “Everything’s behind this year,” he said. “There’s plenty of time.”

I guess I can wait, and keep starting seeds indoors to transplant when it’s really warm enough. Besides, right now it looks like we might need some better fencing before planting this year.

Petersson, or Petersdottir, has already been spotted in the garden, hopping along the snow line, just waiting for something to turn green.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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